Business Lessons from a Writer Who Went Viral

Something happened to me this week. Something that has never happened to me before.

I went viral. 

A little over a month ago, I was invited to contribute to a new publication on Medium that was looking for writers who wanted to create content about politics, social issues, culture, etc. While I love writing copy and this blog, I do have other topics I feel strongly about, so it seemed to be a good place for me. I became a writer (unpaid) for The Overtime, which aims to gather writers from all walks of life, political backgrounds, etc. to put forward a collection of work free from any one bias. While it’s our hope that The Overtime becomes something bigger than a Medium publication at some point, for now, we’re just a bunch of passionate people banding together for the sake of the art.

Anyway, since then I’ve written three articles for the publication. The first two received a decent number of reads for articles on a brand new publication that hasn’t been heavily marketed.

Earlier this week is when I wrote the third, an article about Kanye West and the double standard in our reactions to mental health and mental illness in celebrities.

That’s my article there in the first slot.

With my first two articles, I wrote carefully. The topics were both timely, but also extremely personal and I wanted to make sure I wrote just the right words, formatted just the right way. But with this one, I was in a rush. I had a random unfilled slot on my calendar and I couldn’t really afford to spend any more time on it outside of that slot if I wanted it to be timely.

So I did my research, slapped together an article, and sent it off for publication… all within an hour or so. Within hours of hitting the send button, our editor-in-chief had given it the once-over and published it to the site. I went to sleep.

When I woke up, I had an email from the editor-in-chief letting me know that the article had picked up some traction. I had 15 recommendations and a good 150 reads or so. Not bad; it was a slow and steady increase from my previous articles.

Twenty-four hours later, I had 3.7k views and 80 recommendations, including a Medium Staff pick. My article was featured on the Medium Editor’s Pick subsection and was #1 in the Kanye West subsection.

And these are the current stats, as of right before I started writing this post.

My stats for all three of my articles as of 11/25/2016

People were sharing it on Twitter, Facebook, sending it in emails… my own inbox exploded with notifications. I was (and still am) in shock. In the time between when I took that screenshot and now (about 30 minutes), I’ve gotten a hundred more reads and five more recommendations.

But here’s why I’m really shocked.

I spent like… NO TIME on this article. Yes, I researched a bit for sourcing some information and yes, I wrote it passionately and (quickly) proofread it. But I wasn’t overly concerned about my exact wording or formatting, and my editor caught more than a few errors. I’ve already spent more time writing this blog post than I did on that article (but that’s OK because I schedule blog post-writing time). But despite rushing it, the Kanye article is still the most well-received thing I have ever written to date.

So here’s what going viral has taught me (so far).

1. Perfection isn’t necessarily important. Authenticity is.

I spent so little time editing the article and I wasn’t overly concerned about making everything just so. But readers are still responding to it. Why?

Even though I didn’t spend hours choosing my words or making sure every period was in its place like I might otherwise, I told the truth (or rather my truth). I didn’t talk down to my readers. I included myself in the criticism I was making. And I wrote about something that other people cared about, or at least cared enough about to hear some unknown person’s observations.

I wrote a few weeks ago about why grammar isn’t necessarily important for web copy. The same thing applied here. No one read this article and commented with, “Wow, your grammar was impeccable!” They wrote things like, “This is such a great article. It said exactly what I’d been thinking!” or “This is so true!” And even the people who maybe disagreed with me or thought I didn’t go far enough didn’t say a word about my grammar. It was all about the substance.


2. Your audience decides your success.

My previous articles for The Overtime were both a little political. The first was a critique about reactions to sexual assault and I wasn’t shy about calling a group of people out for their silence. So I probably lost a lot of readers that way. The second article was a criticism related to the recent presidential election, so I probably lost some readers (on both sides) there. But this article was about mental illness, a topic that doesn’t really have the same kind of divides the other topics have. It was newsworthy and timely for pretty much anyone with even a passing interest in popular culture or health.

The other thing that contributes to success is knowing where your audience is. I never really marketed my other articles. Every article gets a Tweet from the publication’s official Twitter, and I retweet that. I share it on Facebook to my friends and maybe a few groups I’m in. But I never went out of my way to put my work out there. That’s why I was so content with the numbers I had on the first two articles…. it was mostly organic traffic from people actively searching for that sort of material. But this time, my editor posted the link to a Kanye-related subreddit for his fans. It got some attention there from people who were happy to read about an artist they like, and that’s where everything took off.

It only takes one or two of the right people to share something for it to snowball.

To be fair, these first two lessons weren’t actually lessons for me. But they might be for you. I used to teach public speaking, and these are both basic tenants of what makes for successful writing and speaking.

3. It gives you a good overall boost, but it comes with a lot of pressure, too.

Now that I can officially say I’ve gone viral, I can already tell that I will have a lot of expectations on myself for the next article. I will probably be disappointed to find that my numbers return to normal. Maybe I’ll get lucky again, but the thing about going viral is that it’s unpredictable. I honestly had hoped my first article about sexual assault would get more attention because it was a subject near and dear to my heart. But it never got the same kind of traction I’m currently getting. Maybe it will eventually… after all, since people liked the Kanye article, they’ve been checking out my other stuff too. I’ve picked up a few extra reads and recommends on older stuff too, as well as some traffic to my website, Twitter, and Instagram. And I’ll never complain about that.

But I can already see that I’m going to have a figurative hangover later when the numbers slow down. Even though I understand the nature of viral content, I know I’ll be hoping for a similar reaction to whatever I write next. And that’s already intimidating. But even if the next article doesn’t get this kind of attention, that doesn’t mean I should quit. I chose to write for this publication for free because I love the mission, I’m interested in seeing it grow, and I love having an outlet for my Other Thoughts™.


How can you apply these lessons to your business?

Like most businesses, you probably have a blog on your website, or maybe you’re using a platform like Medium to publish your business-related content. And you should do one of those things; content marketing is the buzzword of the business world for a reason. Consistent valuable content goes a long way in proving your authority to leads who may contact you, bettering your SEO rankings, and defining your brand.

Even if you don’t keep a blog for your business, you probably have a website where you’ve written an About page or service pages or an investment page. If you’re the number-crunching kind, you may be mildly obsessed with analytics like your bounce rate. No matter what kind of writing you’re doing for your business (or paying to have done),  keep these lessons from going viral in mind.

Make sure you’re focusing on being authentic, not being perfect. Perfection is shallow and, in the end, a narcissistic pursuit. Perfection doesn’t add value. But authenticity is substantive. It’s what helps others solve problems, learn, and grow. And your clients are looking for the ways you can help them and improve their situations.

Make sure you know who your audience is and where they are. If you can’t identify them, you can’t write for them. If you do write for them but don’t know where they are on the internet, you will never make contact. Find venues where they might be hiding and put your stuff out there. And remember: word of mouth is real.

Celebrate when your content is well-received, but don’t forget that success is not a one-shot deal. Success now doesn’t mean you’ve won the game. Figure out what works and how you can use that again later. Conversely, don’t beat yourself up if an attempt flops. Look critically at that too; figure out what didn’t work and make changes accordingly. (Copywriting is all about testing and retesting ideas, even if we’re pleased with the initial results.)


P.S.: If you’d like to read any of the articles I’ve written for The Overtime or other Medium publications, check out my Medium profile and give me an add!

P.P.S.: In the time it took me to write the last half of this post, the Kanye article picked up another 400 views and another 10 recommends! 




4 thoughts on “Business Lessons from a Writer Who Went Viral

    1. Lauren Patton says:

      I’ve definitely decided that if you write thinking something will go viral, it probably won’t because it will stink of desperation! Authentic, real-talk is so, so valuable.


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